Many terms come to mind when an older worker loses a job — none of them pleasant: “put out to pasture,” “given the squeeze,” “aged out,” “consigned to the scrap heap.” And losing a job later in life may seem especially fraught now that the gleam of The Golden Retirement Years has faded for older people, many of whom feel cash-strapped and uncertain about how to finance the decades that likely lay ahead of them.
But some seniors have found ways to use skills honed during years in the workforce to invent a new position or form a new company that finally feels like a perfect fit.
A few of them described their challenges and triumphs recently at a forum titled “Older Adults as Drivers of Innovation,” sponsored by At Home With Growing Older (AHWGO), a group of people hailing from various professions that meets monthly to advocate ways to “re-envision the aging experience.”
75, Blind — and the Luckiest Person in the World
Like most youngsters, Kate Williams says she often found her father “dorky” when she was a girl, and rolled her eyes especially hard at his habit of starting each day with the exhortation: “Attitude is everything, so be sure you pick a good one.”
Now, she says, she lives every single day buoyed by his advice.
Around age 40, Williams was diagnosed with a congenital disease that caused her vision to blur. A decade later, her eyesight had deteriorated so that she could no longer drive — making it nearly impossible to work and thrive where she lived in Laguna Beach, a seaside city in southern California with very limited public transportation. So at age 55, she packed up her belongings and left her home and growing children behind and moved up the coast to San Francisco, which she found to be a “very accepting city,” teeming with trains and buses. There, she snagged a job as a tech recruiter, helping people with impaired vision. But one day, she found she could no longer see the computer screen or read a resume, both essential in her work.
For a time, Williams says, that reality caused her to forget her father’s wise words about keeping a good attitude; she plummeted into a depression. “But I soon realized I had to look at the skills I had and ask myself: ‘What can I do now?’,” she says.
What she did was dream up a new position for herself, managing a program at San Francisco’s Lighthouse for the Blind, in which she brings people with vision limitations from all sectors of the community and helps them find employment.
A large part of Williams’ work focuses on helping people who are blind or visually impaired summon the confidence to land winning job interviews. Even her former bout with depression helps inform that work. “It helps me help them,” she says. “I also convince employers not to hire people because of their disabilities, but because of their abilities.”
The work has unleashed a new passion.
“Now I’m 75 and blind and the luckiest person in the world,” she says. “The best part of my life, besides visits from my grandchildren, is when I get calls from my students telling me about the jobs they got.”
Williams’ pluck and ingenuity won her a 2014 Purpose Prize, (watch video below) honoring social innovators over the age of 60 awarded by Encore.org, a group that helps seniors retool their work lives.
Second Acts for the Greater Good
Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org, is the author of several related books — including Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life and The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.
His vision for the organization stemmed from the mindset that the burgeoning number of baby boomers will become a growing and valuable resource for improving society — and that many of those older individuals are searching for the combination of work and service that will also make a social impact and help them leave meaningful legacies.
To that end, Encore.org has a number of offerings with that focus, including:
- The Encore Fellowships Network, which matches skilled, seasoned professionals with social purpose organizations in paid positions,
- The Encore Prize, which supports innovations that bring experienced talent to social problems, and
- The Encore Network, a coalition of leaders and organizations committed to turning longer lives into a valuable asset.
Two recent examples from that campaign include:
- Grandmas2Go, founded by Linda Otto, a former court-appointed special advocate, who started by placing 20 volunteer “grandmas” in at-risk families in southern Oregon — giving parents respite and instruction while offering their babies cuddling, coddling, and love; and
- Benchwarmers Basketball, the brainchild of Joe Bock, a retiree in southern California, whose desire was to give children ages 8 to 14 who have limited athletic ability the opportunity to play team sports in an easy-going atmosphere outside the competitive pulls of school.
Says one young boy, now a thankful Benchwarmers devotee: “When I’m at school, not everybody gets a chance to get the ball. Sometimes people just hog the ball and start shooting, and even when I try to get them to notice me, they won’t pass the ball to me. Even if I grew, like, two heads, they wouldn’t even notice me.”
Entrepreneur: Thankful for Ageism
Also speaking at the AHWGO forum was Paul Tasner, who recently launched a new business. In 2009, Tasner, who had logged more than 40 years working as an engineer, lost his job in a corporate downsizing a few days before Christmas. He was 64 years old — and far from embracing retirement.
For the next couple years, he turned to consulting work, “without any passion whatsoever,” he says. So he opted instead to turn his passion for a cleaner, greener environment into Pulpworks, an eco-friendly packaging design and manufacturing business.
Tasner chronicles his working journey in a TED Talk, “How I Became an Entrepreneur at 66.” An initial struggle was trying to raise start-up funding for a manufacturing plant. He had no track record as an entrepreneur, and found himself in a losing competition for investors with “very young people” from the high-tech industries. “That was very discouraging and intimidating,” he says now. “I have shoes older than most of those people.” But he now sees all that as a blessing in disguise, as it led to his decision to outsource the manufacturing end of the business. Today, his revenues are growing exponentially — and the business is running debt-free.
“I can thank ageism for where I am today, because I never thought of looking for a job as a 64-year-old. If you categorize me by the money I make now, I’m not a success. But I’m infinitely happier,” Tasner says. And he also underscores the stunning statistic that older entrepreneurs have a 70% success rate, compared to a 28% rate for younger ones: “We’re like the Golden State Warriors of entrepreneurs.”